Preparing to Embrace Freedom … Leaving Mitzrayim … and Leaving Home to Journey Home

A Pesach love-letter and l’hitra’ot/see you soon to my dear kehilla and it’s friends, followers, visitors …

As evidenced by the extreme hiatus in posts on our Little Minyan Kehilla website, I have been on a “sabbatical” as Little Minyan’s “Emerging Rabbi” (senior rabbinical student, founding member, and long-time spiritual leader of this amazing kehilla/community). Since December 21st, I have been in Israel, mostly as a yeshiva student at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the extraordinary, egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem founded in 1972, and home of brilliant teachers and world-wide leaders in Jewish thought, talmidim chachamim, life-long learners from across the globe, alumni advancing Jewish education and leadership throughout the world, and, for the past four months, me and my chevre/cohort of now dear friends and fellow Jewish-learning enthusiasts, all of us studying Torah lishma* … for the sheer pleasure of learning.

For many reasons, it took me more than a half-century to take my maiden voyage to Israel. Zionism was part of my religious school curriculum, here and there, but not a part of my personal heritage (family lineage) or an emphasis in my wonderful Reform Jewish camp and youth group experience in the 1970s and ’80s. I was passionate about the music (including some Zionists songs I know understand much better, eg. Ufaratzta) and Torah and liturgy and Peoplehood throughout a long and arduous history, and the cyclical marking of time by holidays. My Judaism captivated and delighted me so much that as a teen, I wanted to be a rabbi or cantor when I “grew up.” Thus, I was excited to transfer, in 1984, after my freshman year with my camp friends at Indiana University, to a school founded under Jewish auspices during the same year Israel became a state (1948).

Being told for the first time as a college student, by more observant Conservative and Orthodox Jews at Brandeis University, that I was “less Jewish” or “not Jewish enough” and experiencing my first pitch for money from the bimah on Rosh HaShanah was so wounding and such a turn-off to an enthusiastic and, admittedly, overly-sensitive, head-strong, mid-western Jew raised in a small, fabulous, “crunchy-granola,” camping, modern-dancing, guitar-playing, philosophical, intellectual congregation, that my indignant 19-year-old self took a sharp turn away and ditched the opportunity to take even a single one of the plethora of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies classes offered at Brandeis. Nor did I participate in any further tefilla/worship or Jewish communal experience in my remaining three years on campus.

I thought I had been turned off of Judaism … I was wrong, of course. What I had experienced was my first encounter with Jews not “playing well with others” (other Jews) in the big tent of our People. (This will forever be an important part of the tikkun/repair I hope to be a part of as a rabbi … how to realize a more compassionate and tolerant, or, dare I dream, collaborative and vibrantly creative Am Yisrael.)

I began making choices that didn’t place my Jewish identity quite so close to the central pillars of my humanity and life’s journey. Having grown up as the “Jew in the fishbowl” in my mostly Christian community, and raised by parents who cared very deeply about better understanding and appreciating other cultures, nationalities, religions, I was very comfortable playing with others (outside the Jewish sandbox) and found my companions among people of many “walks of life.” These choices led me to embrace other important aspects of my core values and passions – music, environmental and social justice, law and conflict transformation, family.  All of these are, of course, fully compatible with, even amplified among Judaism’s core values, but in a universalist context, they felt more compatible with my 20-something self.

My journey “back” to Judaism was not long as I had never really left. I was committed to a Jewish home and raising Jewish children and joining Jewish community (i.e. “synagogue” during this section of my journey; now a more expansive term, in my view, and a primary impetus for creating the Little Minyan Kehilla … a way of living in community beyond the typical North American congregational experience.) This part of the journey I will leave for another time as this is the part of the story that so many of you already know in broad outline …

Why it still took me so long to get to Israel is almost entirely a matter of practicality vs. ideology. However, ideology has continued to be a sticky wicket (pardon a favorite metaphor) as a liberal, North American, human rights advocate. The behavior of the Israeli government (just as that of many governments, including and especially, these days, that of my own beloved America – land of the free, the one described so poignantly by Emma Lazarus on the base of Lady Liberty) is not one that I approve of in a number of ways. What I have learned, however, in living in this Land and traveling to many of its borders – along which angry Arab terror organizations press regularly – is that we (both on the right and on the left of political ideology and activism) who live far from the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict (words I am choosing deliberately) have a way of seeing the realities of Israel, its inhabitants, and its neighbors through a lens of absolutely unrealistic and ridiculously over-simplified perspective.  Having lived here for four months, I also know with certainty only that I don’t yet, and may never, from foreign shores, know enough to judge those whose job includes the security and continuation of Israel’s existence as a State in which Jews are guaranteed a modicum of safety from those who rise to eradicate us. And this is only the external threat to a vibrant Jewish homeland … the internal threat – the ultra-Orthodox stronghold on civil status and other matters, as well as worship opportunities (in a majority of the many prayer spaces I attended in synagogues and other locations where communities of Jews pray) where separate does not come even close to being equal access to Torah and tefilla and space in which to communally worship. This lack of access and different level of kavod I sensed for the brilliant women rabbis and scholars I was blessed to meet during me time here. There is still a long way to go before I would have, here,in this Land with which I have fallen so deeply in love, any chance of being the rabbi I can and want to be in North America. Yes, my friends, there is much to discuss and enormous nuances in the details, but this is my current articulation of what I hope to be an evolving understanding of how to hold enough space in my heart and practice as a liberal Jew with a “rabbinistry” that embraces the Divine in all wisdom traditions and religions and a supporter of the State of Israel.

I am overflowing with gratitude for the enormously transformative experience of living in Israel for the first time at age 51!  This Pesach, I approach the seder with fresh, nearly nascent eyes, having studied, before Pesach break, the evolution of this chag/holiday from Torah and Talmud forward. THIS year, IN JERUSALEM, I will celebrate this Festival of Freedom in myriad ways (including my first Orthodox seder hosted by my dear friend and teacher, Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy and her amazing family, scheduled to conclude with Hallel/singing of praises around 2 a.m., and followed by post-seder learning in the tradition of the sages we read about in the Hagaddah who questioned and discussed all night until it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma)!! I have had the experience of participating in serious Pesach cleaning and watching the gargantuan cleaning efforts of every restaurant and store on my wanderings  throughout this amazing city. I am sitting at a table on a sidewalk along Derech Beit Lechem (literally, House of BREAD Street – very funny for the week when we do not eat leavened bread) in the Baka neighborhood having had delicious brioche French Toast and fruit with a friend from Toronto and listening to conversations in the background in Hebrew, French, and English (with myriad accents – British, American, and Australian, for certain), among other languages that I don’t recognize as clearly. I am a tourist and I am at home. I am a Jew in a country that operates in a rhythm I recognize so clearly and sweetly as my own. Every doorpost with a mezzuzah, every day counted in relation to Shabbat (today is Rishon/first day after Shabbat), every restaurant with a hand washing station with a special pitcher for netilat yada’im/spiritual and halakhic pre-meal hand washing …

So this year as we tell again through questions the story of the Exodus from slavery, I am working to release myself from the Mitzrayim/the narrowness of some very deep frustration and regret. First, I am practicing compassion and forgiveness and releasing the frustration I feel that so many of the spiritual and intellectual pieces of my Jewish heritage were redacted from the Judaism I received, predominantly by the German intellectualism of my most recent ancestors coupled with the Reform Judaism of the formative decades of my life. I did not live the lives they lived and I cannot continue to blame these ancestors for embracing their own sense of freedom that came from European Enlightenment thinking and less exclusionary (and, at times, very exclusionary) treatment of Jews both in Europe and in the United States in the centuries and decades in which my ancestors navigated their own Jewish identity and how they chose to practice that Judaism. 

Also, I am reframing the regret bordering on shame that it took me more than half a century to have my Shechechiyanu moment in Israel. It is precisely this age and this chapter of my life’s story and this masechet/tractate of my Jewish journey that has allowed me to see Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, with such new and old eyes and feel the vibrancy of Eretz v’Am Yisrael (Land and People) with such ferocious passion. And feeling like a teenager in my neshama/soul and very much like a middle aged woman in my body, I am also keenly aware of the fragility of “this one wild and precious life” (thank you Mary Oliver). Thus, I intend to use what is left of it to do the rabbinic work I have been called to do in North America (the U.S. in particular) and come back to Israel soon and often, B”H (with God’s blessing). 

Finally, I am embracing the freedom to be totally and completely Jewish without explanation to my non-Jewish neighbors and fellow citizens in my secular, Christian-centered hometown (Columbus), state (Ohio), and country (U.S.A.) and also to be totally and completely ME in Israel and in America and anywhere else I go without apology to my Jewish brothers and sisters who view Judaism through different lenses and levels of observance.

Freedom – Stopping to stretch and appreciate the extraordinary Negev desert view toward haYam haMelah (the Salt Sea otherwise known as the Dead Sea), Nisan 5777. and unapologetically ME here in Israel and wherever I travel and invite my Jewish brothers and sisters to see me as totally and completely Jewish without explanation.

As truly saddened as I am to leave my home in Jerusalem during chol ha’moed, I am also very excited to be completing this Festival of Freedom with all of you at home in Columbus. If home is where the heart is, my heart has now grown enough to hold two homes. May your communal seder be deeply meaningful and joyous. I am so grateful to all of you who have stepped into both new and long-held roles you have served so admirably in my absence and, I hope, you will continue to serve upon my return. I have been so delighted and proud of how you have maintained our kehilla and permitted me the pleasure of professional and personal growth so that I may serve you with even more joy and deeper understanding of our wisdom tradition and this Land that is so integrally linked with Torah, tradition, and our cycles of celebration and commemoration.

May your journey out of your own personal Mitzrayim this year be sweetened by the taste of freedom, and may your seders be filled with lively conversation, moments of contemplation, and may the questioning be abundant and engaging even if they don’t keep you up until it is time for the morning Sh’ma.

B’vracha v’Ahava ~ in Blessing and Love ~ בברך ואהבה,

Jessica

“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (lishma) merits many things (which cannot be specified publicly). Not only that (i.e. the unspecified things), but (also) the entire world is worthwhile (creating) for him alone…It (the Torah) gives him kingship,…they (angels and souls of tzadikim) reveal to him the secrets of the Torah. He becomes like an increasingly powerful river…It makes him great and exalted above all of creation.” – Pirkei Avot, Ch. 6
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2 Responses to Preparing to Embrace Freedom … Leaving Mitzrayim … and Leaving Home to Journey Home

  1. Maggie Sarachek says:

    Thanks for this beautiful post! I am so excited for you to come home! The Little Minyan is thriving but I so miss the beauty of the services you lead. You have found your life work and it is at this time in your life, this moment, that you are fully ready to do it! We are blessed to have you in our lives.

  2. Joanie Calem says:

    Looking forward to seeing you and hearing more and more and more about your wonderful time in my home 🙂

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